This consultation is rigidly focused on implementing AIHTS without embellishment, and with minimal change to existing legislation. While we understand how this arises, the drive to implement without taking time to address the bigger picture is disappointing. The situation post-implementation will be considerably more confused and logically inconsistent than beforehand, with a relatively small gain in animal welfare, a considerable cost for individual trap-users, and a risk that utility may be severely compromised. What is needed in practical wildlife management is a suite of effective trap designs that can be bought and used with confidence because they have met internationally agreed humaneness standards for all their target species.
It is disappointing that Defra shows no interest in verifying that new traps are effective before phasing out those that are; and gives no indication that it will commit future resources to create a more consistent and logical regulatory framework for all target species. Since by Defra’s own account (Impact Assessment) there is a strong public interest in animal welfare, they should have no doubt that the use of taxpayers’ money for this purpose would be unopposed. And there are clear public interests in utility (effectiveness) too, because of conservation and pest control issues (see Q7).
The rest of our answer to Q1 relates to the proposals as a means of narrowly implementing AIHTS. Making stoat a protected species will create new issues when traps are used to target other species, as discussed in paragraphs 59-63 of the consultation document. Section 11(2)(a) of the WCA makes it an offence to set a trap which is calculated to injure any animal listed in Schedule 6 which comes into contact with it: i.e. it is irrelevant whether a Schedule 6 species is in fact injured. Our understanding is that ‘calculated’ is roughly equivalent to ‘judged’, and distinct from ‘intended’. In other words, if a Schedule 6 animal were to encounter the trap, the expectation is that it would be injured or killed. Intentionally killing or taking a Schedule 6 species using a trap (or trying to) is a different offence defined in Section11(2)(b). Under the proposed changes, deployment of a non-AIHTS kill trap in a context where a stoat might possibly encounter it would therefore become a S.11(2)(a) offence.
For a S.11(2)(a) offence only (i.e. deployment of the trap) it is an accepted defence to show that the operator was legitimately targeting other species, and that he/she took ‘all reasonable precautions’ to avoid catching any protected species (S.11(6)). To our knowledge, no defence of this kind has ever been tested in the courts to clarify through case law what will be considered ‘reasonable’ or what the significance of the word ‘all’ is; consequently, this part of the legislation already causes anxieties for the trap-user. Paragraph 63 suggests that ‘steps taken to exclude stoats’ would form excusing or mitigating considerations; but stoats are small animals, and it is clearly not possible to catch rats, squirrels, or mink while physically excluding stoats. Weasels too have a substantial overlap with stoats in body size and could not be targeted alone. Short & Reynolds (2001, Biological Conservation 98: 139-147) showed that it is not possible to physically exclude all current Schedule 6 species without substantially reducing the catch of rats and grey squirrels.
Instead of excluding by size, it could be argued that the use of a bait chosen to appeal specifically to rodents (e.g. cereal grain), pre-baiting, and concentration of trap-use into short sessions at specific locations or habitats, are ‘reasonable precautions’ (S.11(6)) to avoid involvement of protected species. However, the use of trap tunnels by rodents may itself attract the attention of stoats, and stoat captures do in fact occur in rodent-trapping campaigns. Under the proposed legislative mechanism, a trapper who uses currently approved traps to target rats or squirrels and who has no intention of catching stoats, would therefore be vulnerable to misguided or malicious prosecution, with no reliable defence. We note in passing that live-traps are not currently a solution in these circumstances (see answer to Q2 below).
Defra argues (para. 62) that in locations where stoats may be caught (which surely applies to most of the British Isles other than urban areas?), the operator should use a trap that is AIHTS-certified for stoats; otherwise he/she would commit an offence. (Para. 63 appears to suggest that a stoat must actually be caught for an offence to arise, but as discussed above this is not the case.) We are unpersuaded that there are any circumstances in which the ‘reasonable precautions’ defence can be relied upon, and therefore in all circumstances the only safe advice after implementation would be to switch to traps that are AIHTS-certified for stoat.
Switching to certified traps for all rodent applications will deliver an improvement in humaneness for stoats as intended, but that is a rather small gain in animal welfare for a huge amount of inconvenience. The situation would be logically more satisfactory, and the need for change more compelling, if there was a wholesale gain in humaneness across all target species. For instance, if Fenn-type traps failed humaneness testing for grey squirrels and replacement traps passed, the case for change would be persuasive.
In reality, there could be negative humaneness and conservation impacts of a general switch to AIHTS-compliant traps. One of the three types of trap to be approved in the UK as AIHTS-certified for stoats (the Goodnature A24 rat and stoat trap) is widely understood to have failed humaneness testing for grey squirrels, yet it would be impossible to physically exclude grey squirrels while targeting rats (i.e. with a rodent bait). Thus although one can use the A24 as a rat trap, in the knowledge that it would be humane for stoat, there would be a likely cost in inhumaneness for grey squirrels. Concerns have also been voiced that this trap is classed in New Zealand as humane (and effective) for hedgehogs, which in the UK are a protected species; it is not known whether the hedgehog excluder offered by the UK importer allows undiminished target captures.
We suggest that Defra should at the least publish a list detailing (for all approved spring-traps) which models have been shown through tests to be humane for which species; and for non-AIHTS species, what standards (time to irreversible unconsciousness) have been met. It would be better still if Defra performed testing to support (or otherwise) all current spring trap approvals. Above all, we would like to see clarification in the legislation (or perhaps in the proposed General Licence) of the circumstances in which it is permissible to use a kill trap that is not AIHTS-certified for stoat. If the essential points cannot be captured by legislators, how can a trap operator be expected to evaluate his/her situation?
We suggest Defra should consider listing all AIHTS species occurring in the UK in the proposed new Schedule to the WCA, whether or not they are already protected via Schedules 5 or 6. This is because species can be added or removed from those Schedules on authority of the Secretary of State, depending on their conservation status or the need to control them as pests. It is conceivable that at some future date, it may be desirable to remove a species from Schedules 5 or 6 while remaining committed to AIHTS. There is nothing to prevent a species being listed in more than one Schedule (several are already listed in both Schedule 5 and Schedule 6). To avoid an absurd loophole, it might be advisable to name the new Schedule ‘Animals which may not be killed or taken by traps or snares’ (rather than ‘traps and snares’).